Dishonored: One of the Most Important Games of the Last Decade


Before I begin trying my best to explain why Dishonored is one of the most important games of the last decade I have to set a few parameters. The first, and most important, is that I only mean the core Dishonored experience. “The Knife of Dunwall” and “The Brigmore Witches” are stellar in their own right (we won’t be talking about Dunwall City Trials either, but that has more to do with the fact that it is a strange, strange anomaly that I don’t want any part of), but they represent an expansion from the base, and the base is what I am primarily interested in.

While Dishonored was well received in its time, it never really got the recognition it deserved. The game did something with the setting (Dunwall) that I still think about to this day. In simple terms Dishonored made me feel something that I hadn’t felt in a video game since my early days of playing Final Fantasy IV. It did something that made me feel like I was in a world worth exploring to its fullest as opposed to just running through the story as quickly as possible like I do with most modern games these days. Dunwall lives and breathes in a way that never got the credit it deserved, and I am hoping that through this I might be able to convince you to reconsider this game as one of the most important of the last decade.

To begin, and by way of illustration of why I’m so fond of this game I am going to make a comparison. I’m hesitant to make this comparison because it is divisive to say the least, but here we go. Dishonored is a little bit like the TV show Lost.

WAIT! Don’t go. Look, you’ve come this far, don’t let your feelings for a TV show sour you. I promise it’s a good point. At its heart this primetime TV show was about a group of people who crashed on a mysterious island. While that was certainly the premise, more accurately it was a show that was manipulation on a grand scale. Every week it presented a series of fresh mysteries to be solved, “What is the island?” and “What’s that smoke monster that keeps eating people all the time?” and “How is it even possible that this morbidly obese character hasn’t lost any weight after six seasons of eating coconuts and bananas exclusively”. Where the show struggled, and how it differs from Dishonored is that it never had any intention of solving any of them. The whole point was to make the viewer *think* these mysteries were going to be solved, but it never delivered in any serious way.

Dishonored is like Lost, only not terrible. It offers the same number of mysteries, with almost no explanation for any of them, but the key difference here, and I hope that if you take just one point away from this it’ll be this, is that Dishonored only ever promised to answer one question: “Can Corvo avenge the Empress’ death and save the day?” That’s it.

Everything else in the game falls under setting, and to a game like Dishonored the setting is absolutely everything. This is, fundamentally, why I believe this game is so important. The question that the game sets out to answer isn’t even as important as the ones that it asks along the way, and unlike Lost it doesn’t feel like manipulation because these questions aren’t necessarily integral to the plot, and there is nothing that implies that any of it will be answered.

Reading that back it’s a little confusing. Alright, here’s a good example. There is a line that the Heart says that goes along the lines of: “The doom of Pandyssia has come to this city”.

Through the normal course of the game you never find out where Pandyssia is or what exactly its ‘doom’ entails, but that one line of offhand dialogue explodes a narrative arc in the player’s mind. It creates a world where the events have apparently happened before in some capacity, and they are currently happening again. We don’t know where they happened before. We don’t know the fall out of that event. We don’t really know anything because that’s not what the story of Dishonored is about. With one line of mystery the game has created a world where there is another continent, a history that stretches beyond the events of the game, and an air of importance to Corvo’s current efforts. The game is full of lines like this, especially from the Heart, that details of which can only be found in the volumes and volumes of written materials that litter Dunwall for the truly interested player to seek out.

I’m going to talk about the Heart now as it is at the worst a very good example of what I’m talking about. If you are unfamiliar with the Heart and how it works then let me be the first on congratulating you on making it this far in an article about a game you haven’t played.

The Heart is essentially a guide and pseudo-narrator for the world of Dunwall. In addition to giving the players valuable knowledge about the location of runes hidden throughout the world, it also commentates on whatever person or thing the player chooses to point it at. If you point it at nothing you get information about the area, if you point it at a guard you get a warning from inside that guard’s mind sometimes telling you benign things, and sometimes telling you that “unless he dies tonight, he will kill twice more before ending his own life”. How does the Heart know this? Well, that is exactly the kind of mystery that I’m talking about, and the game never answers it. It never even tells you who this heart belongs to.

The Heart works so well because it bridges the supernatural elements of the story with the literal events as they happen. It provides an omniscient narrator to give a glimpse into the stories that the main plot doesn’t have time to reveal. It is the primary purveyor of these setting based mysteries. It is largely responsible for this incredible setting, and the game would be much weaker for its loss, which, as a side note, is part of the reason why we aren’t talking about the “The Knife of Dunwall” or “The Brigmore Witches”.

I could honestly talk about Dishonored’s setting and mysteries forever. I mean, I haven’t even touched on the mythos of the Outsider and how his symbolism permeates the city, or what the weepers symbolize, but I think that’s enough for one day. I hope that, if you haven’t played Dishonored or just haven’t played it recently, this encourages you to pick it up. The game deserves much more credit than it got, and there is a lot to learn about intriguing narratives in gaming that Dishonored simply teaches a master class in.